Anamorphic Lens: What Is It & Why You Should Use It

Gear Jul 07, 2020


Anamorphic lenses are a crucial asset in the toolbox of all filmmakers. When creating your masterpiece, there are many things to consider; ‘What kind of story to tell?’ and ‘How do I make this story look good on the screen?’

Here is where anamorphic lenses come into the picture. An anamorphic lens is a filmmaker favourite for the unique look it brings. If you are considering a lens hire, check out our guide first.

In this article you’ll find out about:

  • What is an anamorphic lens?
  • When was it first used?
  • How does the lens affect the shoot?
  • What is the difference between an Anamorphic and Spherical lens?
  • Why should you try anamorphic optics?
  • 6 Tips for your first shoot with the lens.

What is an anamorphic lens?

What is an anamorphic lens? Where does the name of an anamorphic lens come from? Anamorphosis

Anamorphic lenses are changing the dimension of the image in one axis, so you're taking a wide field of view and squeezing that image onto a narrower sensor.

In other words, anamorphic lenses compress the image along the longer dimension, usually by a factor of two.

The images need stretching in post-production or at the projector. Otherwise, the magic will disappear and will not display correctly.

When was it first used?

The first use of anamorphic lenses was on the French battlefields, during the First World War.  Once an asset for war, this lens provided soldiers with a wider look outside of tanks helping them identify enemies, an early version of the reverse camera if you like!

Anamorphic vs Spherical: What Are The Differences?

Spherical lenses have less glass for the light to pass through and have more straightforward mechanics. They tend to produce sharper images with minimal distortion across the entire picture.

Anamorphic lenses can usually be identified by their reduced sharpness, increased distortion, and falloff – which is where the closer we get to the edges of the image, the more distortion and softness we get. They also produce more dramatic lens flares, because they have more glass inside the body.

How does the shot change? Anamorphic and spherical lens

Frame Size and Aspect Ratio

For anamorphic footage, the frame size will typically be either 720x576 for PAL or 720x480 for NTSC. To convert these into widescreen 16:9 non-anamorphic square pixel formats, you need to stretch them horizontally. With an anamorphic lens, the aspect ratio often more than doubles.

Anamorphic widescreen was a response to a shortcoming in the flat, spherical widescreen format. With a non-anamorphic lens, the picture is recorded such that its full width fits within the film's frame, but not its full height.

Less Options and More Expensive

Anamorphic lenses are also more expensive since they are more complex and more difficult to construct. Spherical lenses are usually faster, meaning they have a lower t-stop such as T1.3. to T2 and therefore let in more light. Anamorphic lenses usually have a stop between T2.8 and T4, preventing more light to pass through.

With anamorphic lenses, you often have fewer options too. Spherical lenses have more focal lengths, where anamorphic are mostly built around 40, 50, 75 and 100mm lengths.

Final Product

The biggest difference is the final product, where anamorphic footage has a softer, more cinematographic, and artsy feel. The bokeh and lights are rather cubic or oval, and with spherical lens they are rounded. Anamorphic flares are stretched horizontally and will give your footage that aesthetic look. With the anamorphic lens, you catch a wider frame, so it is more expensive for the set as well.

How does the anamorphic lens work with light?

What does the lens do?

After the Second World War, the anamorphic lens left the army and joined the toolbox of filmmakers, finding a new home in Hollywood.  

The film industry utilised the lens to create exciting wide-angled shots, to combat the rise in popularity of the television which was finding its place in the centre of many American households.  

Shots from the lens created an exciting widescreen effect which could not be replicated in the home, preserving the cinema's place as an important enjoyable experience.

Widescreen was pulled off by using lenses that capture a wider aspect ratio. Then squeezing the image onto a narrow film strip.  This is known as CinemaScope, a filmmaking process in which a motion picture is projected on a screen, with the width of the image approximately two and a half times its height.

Check out some comparison shots here:

Shoot a wide field of view

Cinematographers worldwide love anamorphic lenses. They help achieve that epic cinematic look. Many films you love are shot in this format.

The lenses provide an incredible aspect ratio. You can capture 2.39:1 aspect ratio footage using your normal camera.

This gives a wide field of view that is still very distortion-free in the centre. Even when shooting very close close-ups, the distortion will be minimal. Towards the edges, the story is a bit different. In short, it has a very shallow depth of field in the centre of the shot.

The compression means you can capture much wider shots from the same spot.  

Widescreen & Black Bars

The anamorphic lens footage is also known for its cinematic black bars. This is what happens when you attempt to squeeze a wide aspect ratio onto a screen that has a narrower one. This is because the screen has to fill the shot side to side

Not only is it unavoidable - it will definitely give your film that cinematic cool look that we all know and love.

Anamorphic Lens Flares & Oval Bokeh

For each lens, you’ll get a different lens flare. It’s what happens when the lens and sensor capture lights. And for anamorphic, you get a very distinct lens flare.

Anamorphic gives a horizontally stretched lens flare. It’s a look and feel that you can’t get from any other lens. It’s a lens flare that almost pops out of the screen whenever light hits the lens.

Besides the horizontal lens flares, you’ll get oval bokeh. Bokeh is the way the lens captures out-of-focus lights in the background. A traditional lens would give a more ball-like bokeh.

Shoot with anamorphic lenses: Tips & Considerations

Why use anamorphic lenses?

It is completely up to you and your personal tastes and preferences.

As Roger Deakins said: ‘It’s not about the type or brand of your lens, it is about what it does for your story’.

It is completely your choice how you want to tell your story. Choosing anamorphic is like choosing which focal length you want to shoot with.

Shooting with the anamorphic lens allows a sense of closeness you might not get from a conventional focal length.

In some ways, it allows an actor to give their full performance while still feeling ‘warm’ on screen.

Try it for yourself

Still, you shouldn’t limit yourself in your choices. Don’t listen to other voices saying you have to do something because it looks good. Instead, consider what it actually does for your personal frame.

The perks of the anamorphic is that it looks amazing on the screen and gives a nostalgic look. Also, it might make you a better filmmaker. It introduces your frame to new action and allows more detail in each image.

Which lens to choose?

Choosing among the number of options can be overwhelming. It’s difficult to pick the right lens for your kit and style due to the endless combinations of cameras and lenses.

We’ve put together this guide to help take your cinematography to the next level.

You have to consider three things when choosing an anamorphic lens:

  1. Size and weight of the anamorphic
  2. Single or dual focus
  3. Your DSLR and prime lenses

What is a decent size and weight for an anamorphic lens?

Large format lenses

The full-size range is a great option for the budget-conscious filmmaker. Especially if you shoot with a locked-down tripod. This means models like Isco & Schneider.

These are the large format lenses. Early models of these are approximately 1.3kg in weight and around 25cm in length.

If you want an alternative, take a look at the copies. Japanese Kollomorgen or American Bell & Howell are great options.

Medium format lenses

Looking for a lighter rig? Into more run-and-gun filming? Then the medium format lenses like Isco Micro and Kowa B&H would be perfect for you.

The lenses combine the build quality of large format lenses with the sharpness of smaller packages.

Isco Micro is only 0.45 kg in weight and is a great balance of value for most DSLR shooters.

Small format lenses

Small format lenses like Baby Hypogonar and Baby Isco give anamorphic quality in the smallest possible package.

Typically, these lenses have a diameter no wider than 52mm. So, you will need a prime taking lens with a smaller front diameter to avoid light transmission loss.

Remember that small format lenses might not stand up to professional standards.

How to choose an anamorphic lens size and weight

Single or Dual Focus Anamorphic?

Most anamorphic lenses are focused by both the prime taking lens and the anamorphic lens.

Dual focusing is not very difficult, but there are filmmakers who prefer single focus, especially when working with narrative shoots.

Pure single focus anamorphic lenses

A few anamorphic lenses, including Isco Rama 36,54, can be focused by setting your taking lens to infinity and focusing only with the anamorphic. This solution is the easiest to shoot with.

Dual focus anamorphic

Some dual focus systems use one follow focus to calibrate both anamorphic and taking lenses. Brands to keep an eye on here are Rectilux and Rapido.

These don’t affect the quality of your anamorphic lenses with extra optics. But they can be difficult to calibrate, especially when changing lenses in the field.

Anamorphic dual and single focus

Will your camera and lenses work together?

Not every anamorphic lens works with every prime lens and DSLR camera.

Generally, you would like to use a 2x anamorphic lens with an 85mm prime lens on full-frame.  A 50mm lens on APS-C/Super 35, and 43mm lenses on Micro 4/3.

Some lenses, as the Isco Micro Anamorphic Lens, can perform well with a full-frame camera and provide a wide anamorphic view.

Remember, that with a 2x anamorphic lens, you are doubling your field of view. So, an 85mm lens with an anamorphic attachment will look like a 42.5 mm canvas to paint your image on.

In simpler words, divide your prime lens by 2 to get your anamorphic equivalent.

6 Tips For Shooting Anamorphic

6 tips for shooting anamorphic footage

1. Flare

Everyone loves that flare that you get with an anamorphic lens.

It makes the image look beautiful, iconic and cinematic. It is that horizontal blue flare that goes across the frame when it’s hit by a strong light source.

If you need a big drastic flare, shoot directly into the light. For softer flare, you shoot from the side or have the light more towards the edges of the image.

Be careful, though. Flares can be distracting and take attention away from the actual picture. Consider your personal preferences and what you, as a filmmaker, are shooting. Just keep in mind, that overdoing the flares can be very distracting.

2. Transition your lens flares

Make the lens flare appear or hide it behind an object and then make it appear again. This gives a more organic and authentic look and feel.

3. Proper Alignment and Distortion

Always check the alignment so the image doesn't get distorted.

When using an anamorphic lens, pay extra attention to the edges of the frame. So, when you pan the camera left and right, you put the subjects in certain parts of the frame.

Anamorphic lenses force you to frame what is important in the centre of the frame. Panning the camera creates distortion, so the image is not nearly as clean, sharp or precise on the edges as in the centre.

4. Anamorphic Focus Fall-Off

Besides distortion, you have to remember the focus and how sharp and accurate the lenses are.

When you shoot something that is important, be careful. Don't suddenly put focus towards the edge of the frame. The subject will not be as sharp as it would have been in the centre of the frame.

Working with changing focus with an anamorphic lens is much stronger and faster which might be a little too distracting for some people.

5. Lens breathing

When you rack focus on the anamorphic lens, you can notice that it ‘breathes’. In other words, the subject in front of the lens morphs and is slightly transformed.

As an example, when you try to rack focus into the background, you’ll notice how the person’s body and face changes.

So, when shooting with anamorphic you might not want to have as strong a rack or as fast of a focus rack, because it can be a little distracting.

6. The right angle and stabilisation

You don't want the image to be unnatural or to shoot when the sun is right up on the sky – it is easier when the sun is lower, and the lens is set up properly to get the proper final footage with nice flares.

It is even more important to get smooth footage with an anamorphic lens – but you might have to use a gimbal.

These tips can help you when choosing whether to use anamorphic for your next piece. Remember, there is always room for learning and improving your skills.

Anamorphic Format

Anamorphic format is the art of shooting a widescreen picture on standard 35 mm. This style is popular enough for smartphones to produce small anamorphic lenses for less than $150.

De-squeeze!

Anamorphic lens is mostly used for cinematography but can be used for photography as well, as long as it gets desqueezed – as with the video.

How to de-squeeze an image in Premiere?

1. Select your clip in the timeline to de-squeeze.
2. Click on “Modify”
3. Select “Interpret Footage”
4. Under “Frame Rate”, you’ll see a section to input “Conform To”. Select HD Anamorphic value.

Hop over to MOMENT for more tips, where you can find out how to desqueeze your anamorphic footage in multiple programs in just a couple of steps.

Interested in trying out anamorphic lenses? Rent it now on Wedio (Available in Denmark, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London)

Wedio Anamorphic lens infographic summary

Wedio

Among with Zuzana Ruttkay

Your trusted camera sharing community. Experience flexibility by renting daily, weekly, or monthly — global insurance included.